An Overview of “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes”

Robert Kuehn, Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and David Moss, Associate Clinical Professor at Wayne State University Law School, recently conducted a large-scale study looking at the relationship between clinical/experiential or bar subject-matter courses and bar passage success in a paper entitled, “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes.” As a law student currently enrolled in a clinic, this study immediately piqued my interest.

This study was in response to fear that bar passage rates were down because of rising enrollment in “experiential courses” as opposed to “bar-subject courses.” Law schools began pushing students to enroll in more of these bar-subject courses to correct this so-called issue. However, Professor Kuehn and Professor Moss observed that there was no evidence to suggest that taking more bar-subject courses was appropriate advice for all students. Their study looked at this missing evidence between bar-subject courses and experiential learning and bar exam outcomes for ten years between two law schools: Washington University School of Law (WashU) and Wayne State University Law School (Wayne State). Both schools only require the designed first year courses and the upper-level writing courses mandated by ABA accreditation standards.

Previous studies performed in states like Texas, Colorado, and California looked at the effects of coursework and bar passage rates. These studies did not support the claim that taking more bar-tested law school course improve chances of passing on the first attempt. Notably, a study done in Indiana concluded, “simply forcing lower-performing students to take more upper division bar-subject courses will not solve the bar examination failure problem.”

The first goal of the present study was to determine whether a graduate’s enrollment in elective experiential courses was related to first-time bar passage success. Next, it was to assess whether enrollment in elective courses that cover bar subjects was related to bar success.

Data was collected from law school graduates from 2006-2015. The following table outlines the number of graduates with LSAT scores and bar passage rates between the two schools:

The next table looked at graduate characteristics such as undergraduate GPA, LSAT score, 1L GPA, and law GPA and their correlation with bar passage:

It wasn’t until 2005 that the ABA began requiring graduates to receive professional skills instruction with as little as one credit satisfying the requirement. In 2014, the ABA changed this to require six credits beginning with 2019 graduates. The study authors decided to track enrollment in skills courses versus bar passage over this time period.

The table above reveals a solid line depicting that average bar passage percentages were steady from 2006-2013 (this is when experiential course enrollment increased by over 50%). During the significant rise in experiential enrollment, bar passage percentages were largely steady. “Therefore, efforts to link declining nationwide bar passage rates to the rise in experiential course enrollment are not supported by national statistics.” A more likely contributing cause for bar passage declines since 2014 is weaker credentials of incoming 1Ls.

At WashU, it was found that while taking at least the average number of bar courses is associated with increased likelihood of passing the bar, there was no statistically significant increase in bar passage associated with bottom-quartile LGPA graduates who took more than the school’s average. This was similar with graduates in the bottom half of their class at Wayne State. Results for both schools indicate that graduates in bottom quartile who take fewer than the average number of bar courses at their school were associated with a significant increase in bar failure. Further, at both schools, students entering with scores lower than 150 were associated with pass rates significantly below the school’s average.

This study concluded that the claim that the dramatic decline in bar passage rates is due to law students taking more experiential courses or fewer bar-related courses is not supported. It characterized efforts to cap experiential credits in order to improve bar passages rates are “misguided,” warning that schools should not expect that “mere exposure” to more bar courses will significantly improve bar passage rates.

Also see “Legal Skills Prof Blog” and “TaxProf Blog” for more posts on this study

2 Responses

  1. These important studies about the limited effect of taking additional bar required courses on bar passage for students at risk of failure are important to understanding the limitations of the traditional curriculum–but they are not very helpful to forward planning. By definition, what they are studying is the status quo. And what they are finding is that “more of the same” isn’t helpful.
    They support what we know–that many of today’s students are not learning the skills they need to master the complex legal analysis skills required for bar passage even though they are getting passing grades in their first year classes.

    Going forward, we need to look closely at schools who have successfully addressed their bar passage problems by making effective changes to their first year curriculum (by using inclusive, evidence based methods and then appropriate assessment) and then following through by making similar changes to the upper level curriculum.

    Certainly, the results of these studies rebut arguments that limiting experiential learning and requiring more classroom instruction are necessary to improve bar passage.

    But they do not relieve us of the responsibility of finding better ways to teach both the methods of legal analysis and the content of the legal disciplines tested on the bar exam.

    If anything, excellent studies like this one support what many schools are doing either by changing classroom instruction or adding layers of extensive academic support/bar preparation onto the curriculum. More of the same won’t work.

    Taking the broader view, all the available research on education suggests that increasing experiential learning should enhance acquisition of legal analysis skills and allow students to master even more content–but again, the answer isn’t to swing the pendulum the other way.

    The task going forward is to use what we know about learning theory to find ways of making “universal design” changes to the curriculum that bring experiential learning and classroom learning closer together so that they support student learning for the whole class–not just the increasingly small percentage of students who succeed using the 1890’s methods of legal education.

    It would be a mistake to use these studies of our past practices to support not changing what we’re doing today.

  2. I don’t have access to the study itself but what does it say about students with high LSGPAs taking bar classes and passing the bar exactly? How strong was the correlation there, if there was one?

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